Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Death of a salesman (and newsman)

I'm calling this week a failure for our business. Not that the failure specifically happened this week, but the reality of it came to light.

Coming up on the editorial side of the newspaper/news biz, I was always focused on the ideology of the newspaper's mission: provide the news/facts in an unbiased manner, be a government watchdog, find innovative ways of story telling and be the record keeper of history as it happens.

These are fine, lofty goals. But it's not the big picture of the news business. Over the years, I have come to see the overall goals and missions for newspapers and broadcast that carry the news. Yes, it is to deliver pertinent information in a timely manner. But that is just one of many parts in the news machine.

To be economically viable, the newspaper (or news broadcast station) must also be practicable marketing tool for businesses. Specifically, a community newspaper must be a feasible means for local businesses to advertise.

If circulation and readership decline, the value of the product is less to those advertisers (or potential advertisers).

The past couple years I've worried about our declining circulation. But we all know subscriptions and single-copy sales don't make us much money. The ad revenue drives the newspaper.

For the past few weeks, a local grocer who has placed a full page ad every week in our newspaper for decades gave incredible deals through coupons in its ad. The response was minimal. So minimal, that our newspaper will no longer have that ad.

This is a big financial blow to our weekly newspaper. But that's not the only thing I'm concerned about. The low rate of return on great deals for necessary items (eggs, milk, etc.) concerns me from a readership standpoint.

Coupons are a great indicator of consumer response to advertisements. Take many furniture stores or car dealerships - in broadcast ads they'll say things like "Tell them Bob sent you" or "Ask for John." Chances are, the salesmen have never met Bob (or don't care that Bob sent you) or John won't be there to help you. But it gives that business an indication of who is coming there in response to the ad.

If we are getting such a low rate of return on local grocery coupons, what does that say about how many people are actually picking up the newspaper and reading it?

From an editorial standpoint, it means people in this community are not as informed as they should be about local issues.

From a circulation standpoint, it means we are not reaching the number of people we need to.

From an advertising standpoint, we are not a viable marketing tool for local business.

Unfortunately, despite the ideological goals, the latter is the one that matters most. If local businesses cannot use the newspaper as a means to drive more business for themselves, then that product is useless to them - a waste of their money. Those businesses cannot grow through the newspaper.

That's where it hurts the news biz financially. They stop advertising and subsequently stop picking up the newspaper. The domino affect begins.

Unless we can find a way to rebound in circulation, we are, as the pundits have put it, writing our own obituary.

I do not believe newspapers have to die. I believe the way we deliver them can be modified to fit consumers, creating that viable marketing tool.

But that subject is for another blog post.